The year 2023 had no shortage of great Buddhist titles. Many of these books were featured in our quarterly What We’re Reading column, which can be found online and in print, where we regularly share a collection of new books that we’re enjoying—as well as older ones we think are worth a second look. Others can be found among our bevy of magazine and web offerings, whether in the form of author interviews, featured book passages, or in reviews. From poetry collections that conjure dreamlike states filled with bodhisattvas and devas to scholarly fiction that reimagines the first Buddhist women’s request for ordination, these books captured our imaginations, kept us company during times of great duress, and illuminated spots outside of our worldview like a lamp in a starless night. Brighten your reading list with thirteen of our favorite new books from 2023.
The Penguin Book of Modern Tibetan Essays, edited by Tenzin Dickie
Growing up in exile in India, Tenzin Dickie didn’t have access to Tibetan literature. Now, as an editor and translator, she is working to shed light on the hidden stories of Tibetan life in exile. Her latest book, a collection of essays by twenty-two Tibetan authors from around the world, offers a powerful portrait of modern Tibetan life, demonstrating the resilience of the global Tibetan community and the perseverance of Tibetan literature. Dickie frames Tibetan literature as written in political and territorial bardo, marked by both pain and possibility. Listen to Dickie speak to how modern Tibetan writers are continually recreating the Tibetan nation on a recent episode of Tricycle Talks, and read an excerpt from the collection here.
Phantom Pain Wings, by Kim Hyesoon, translated from Korean by Don Mee Choi
Written after the passing of her father, Phantom Pain Wings is a remarkable achievement from one of South Korea’s most heavily revered and imaginative poets, Kim Hyesoon. While the poems of this collection center on grief and death, they never aim for consolation or an easily digestible sentiment but rather create parallel worlds, separate from reality and simultaneously separate from the memories or images that conjured them into being. Deftly illuminated by kindred spirit writer and translator Don Mee Choi, Phantom Pain Wings is less a balm than an oneiric trance state you won’t want to snap out of.
The New Saints: From Broken Hearts to Spiritual Warriors, by Lama Rod Owens
Rod Owens draws from the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism and the legacy of Black liberation movements to put forth the notion of the New Saint. “The New Saint is a rethinking of what it means to be a bodhisattva right now, with a particular focus on relative justice and its relationship to ultimate liberation,” Owens told Tricycle earlier this year. “It’s about the contemporary experience of people in a world that seems to be on the edge of catastrophe.” Listen to Owens speak with Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, on a recent episode of Tricycle Talks.
Falling Back in Love with Being Human: Letters to Lost Souls, by Kai Cheng Thom
Feeling like the world was collapsing, Kai Cheng Thom posed a question to herself: What happens when we imagine loving the people—and the parts of ourselves—that we do not believe are worthy of love? The result, Falling Back in Love with Being Human: Letters to Lost Souls, is Thom’s “act of prayer in a collapsing world”—a spell to summon the language to help her fall back in love with herself and the people around her. The book consists of letters Thom writes—to ancestors and exes, to her past and future selves, to those who have harmed her and those she has harmed, and to everyone she believed was beyond saving. “I needed to know that I could love them,” she writes, “because that meant I could still love myself.” Thom spoke with Tricycle about the Buddhist rituals that inform her work in a recent interview.
The Gathering: A Story of the First Buddhist Women, by Vanessa R. Sasson
Scholar Vanessa R. Sasson offers an imaginative retelling of the story of first Buddhist women’s request for ordination after the Buddha’s enlightenment. Building on decades of research and drawing from the poems of the Therigatha, the novel explores how the women navigate the paradox of seeking ultimate liberation while still bound by social inequality. Listen to Sasson discuss how contemporary women monastics understand this story on a recent episode of Tricycle Talks, and read an excerpt from the novel here.
Illumination: A Guide to the Buddhist Method of No-Method, by Rebecca Li
There’s method in the no-method approach, or the Buddhist practice of “silent illumination,” as taught by Chan Master Sheng Yen (1931–2009). Rebecca Li, a Chan Buddhist teacher, writes that this method completely changed her understanding of silence. Silence does not mean to “push away or avoid all noise,” but instead to “refrain from succumbing to our habitual reactivity that gets in the way of fully experiencing the present moment as it is.” After introducing readers to the essential components of silent illumination, chapters on the “modes of operation,” including craving and trance, help us halt reactivity and see contentment as our natural state of being.
—Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar
The Asking: New and Selected Poems, by Jane Hirshfield
When poet Jane Hirshfield first arrived at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center nearly fifty years ago, a Zen teacher told her that it was a good idea to have a question to practice with. She’s been asking questions ever since, both in her writing and practice. Hirshfield’s latest poetry collection revolves around the themes of not-knowing, renewal, and awe of the natural world, underpinned by questions that are not easily answered. The book includes previously published poems and new work, including “Today, When I Could Do Nothing,” written as the COVID-19 lockdown was just beginning. In an interview published in our Fall 2023 issue, Tricycle asked Hirshfield what she hoped readers and writers would take away from The Asking: “My advice to young writers is often: ‘Open the window a little wider than you feel comfortable.’ My advice in practice is to ask each thing, event, person you meet, ‘What is your teaching?’”
—Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar
Babasaheb: My Life With Dr Ambedkar, by Savita Ambedkar, translated by Nadeem Khan
The founder of contemporary Navayāna Buddhism, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was known as a lifelong champion of social justice, civil rights for the “untouchable” Dalit caste, and a key Indian constitution drafter. But, had Ambedkar not met and married Sharada Kabir, it’s unlikely that he would have been able to accomplish nearly as much as he did. Kabir, who later became known as Dr. Savita Ambedkar, first published her memoir in Marathi in 1990. More than twenty years after her death, Babasaheb: My Life with Dr Ambedkar was published in English for the first time. Translated by Nadeem Khan, Babasaheb gives English speakers an insightful look into Savita’s complicated commitment to serving her husband as a companion, caretaker, and trustworthy confidante during watershed moments in modern Indian history.
—Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar
Real Life: The Journey from Isolation to Openness and Freedom, by Sharon Salzberg
Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg draws upon her own life experiences and that of a variety of sources to provide a path from isolation to openness. By recognizing our own bad habits and tendencies to withdraw inward, while reserving judgment of those patterns, we can move from contraction to expansion, she says. We can go from being bystanders in our own lives to living freely. With warmth, humor, and sensitivity, Salzberg creates a supported space for readers to take this journey, and all the difficult confrontations it might entail, with the comfort of knowing they’re not alone. Listen to Salzberg discuss the power of opening to freedom on an episode of Life As It Is, and read an excerpt from the book here.
Further Zen Conversations: On the scope, practice, and future of North American Zen, by Richard Bryan McDaniel
Longtime Zen practitioner and former academic Richard McDaniel interviews more than thirty prominent teachers from a variety of Zen lineages across North America. As a follow-up to Zen Conversations: 42 Zen Teachers Talk about the Scope of Zen Teaching and Practice in North America (2021), McDaniel asks some pointed and tough questions and gets some frank answers. Documenting North American Zen’s successes and challenges, this quick read provides much to contemplate.
—Frederick M. Ranallo-Higgins
Throw Yourself into the House of Buddha: The Life and Zen Teachings of Tangen Harada Roshi, by Tangen Harada, translated by Belenda Attaway Yamakawa and edited by Kogen Czarnik
Half memoir, half dharma talk, all Zen. Born Usao Abe, Harada Roshi (1924–2018) began practicing Buddhism in his 20s, shortly after serving as a kamikaze pilot in World War II. Having volunteered “to fight against enemies who were portrayed by military propaganda as if they were devils themselves,” his final flight was scheduled within a week of completing his training—but just as he was preparing for takeoff, the Emperor announced Japan’s formal surrender over the radio. Harada Roshi did not write this book himself, nor did he speak about his life at great lengths, as Kogen Czarnik notes in the editor’s preface; rather, while giving dharma talks, Harada Roshi would occasionally recall snippets of his life to illustrate a teaching point, and, using translations of several talks, Czarnik was able to stitch together an autobiography of sorts (see “Break Through or Die Trying” for an abbreviated version).
—Daniel Ilan Cohen Thin
The Lotus Moon: The Art and Poetry of the Buddhist Nun Otagaki Rengetsu, by John Stevens
The most recent passion project from Buddhist priest, calligraphy translator, and professor John Stevens presents the work of the Japanese samurai-nun Otagaki Rengetsu (1791–1875). Rengetsu’s creations as a poet, calligrapher, painter, and potter are prolific, and her historically unique multifacetedness has allowed for the preservation of many of her projects. Ninety of these are featured in Stevens’s comprehensive book, which was originally created as a catalog for an exhibition of Rengetsu’s work at the Royal Monastery of St Mary of Pedralbes in Barcelona. As the principal expert on the artist, Stevens fills the book with engaging commentary on Rengetsu’s pieces while crafting an insightful portrait of her life. Read more of Stevens’s work in the Summer 2023 issue of Tricycle, and stay tuned for upcoming coverage of the unexpected story behind the making of The Lotus Moon.
The Little Book of Zen Healing: Japanese Rituals for Beauty, Harmony, and Love, by Paula Arai
In August 2022, Dr. Paula Arai was named the first Eshinni and Kakushinni Professor of Women and Buddhist Studies. In her latest title, The Little Book of Zen Healing, the professor and author pays homage to the ancestral wisdom of the Japanese Buddhist laywomen she meets on pilgrimage, following the death of her mother. With deep reverence for the spirit of beauty and ritual practice, these personal reflections offer an adaptable road map on how to integrate grief into the quiet grooves of daily life.
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